Posted: July 15, 2014
NATURAL RIGHT AND AMERICA'S FUTURE
To the Editors:
In the March 22, 1985, issue of National Review, Charles Kesler of Claremont McKenna College published an article entitled "Is Conservatism Un-American?" Kesler pointed out that many otherwise patriotic conservatives hold a low opinion of the principles on which the United States was founded. This is especially true, Kesler showed, among what is probably the most serious group of conservative intellectuals today, the students of the late Leo Strauss and those influenced by them, such as Irving Kristol and George Will.
One of Strauss's most highly reputed students, Joseph Cropsey, associated himself with this disparaging view of America ten years ago in his "The United States as Regime and the Sources of the American Way of Life" (delivered at the American Political Science Association meeting in 1975 and printed in his Political Philosophy and the Issues of Politics, University of Chicago Press, 1977). Since then a number of Chicago students, most notably Thomas Pangle, have come forth with morally similar accounts of America's principles.
Now from a new generation of Chicago Ph.D.s, Gregory Smith joins the chorus, although it may be, and I hope, that he did not quite intend to do so. The occasion was his review of Four Texts on Socrates, translated by Grace West and myself, in the last issue of The Claremont Review of Books (Summer 1985). This review was actually a discussion of "the crisis of the West," taking the first few pages of my Introduction to Four Texts as its point of departure.
My response to Smith, then, is also directed toward those more prominent intellectuals mentioned above, insofar as their understanding is shared by Smith. And I think, on the main questions, his views generally reflect theirs.
Smith argues that the crisis of our time lies in the collapse of all ancient traditions. He sympathetically recounts the arguments of Nietzsche and Heidegger that Socratic rationalism is somehow responsible for this collapse (although in his brief remarks on Leo Strauss, Smith wavers). Accordingly, Smith rejects my suggestion (in Four Texts, pp.9-12) that a return to Socratic political philosophy may help us find our way out of the current crisis.
Perhaps the most abstract aspect of Smith's very abstract account is its silence on America and the Soviet Union. Where does Smith think he lives? He complains that I lack the citizen's perspective, but he writes as though he were a citizen of "the West"-not the actual political community of the United States. Thus his discussion of the crisis of our age attempts to go to its theoretical root, but he neglects its most obvious practical manifestation: the enormous growth of Soviet power and the threat of a homogeneous world state run by ideological thugs. A Marxist state, hostile in its root principle to the very idea of eternity, would seek out and attempt to snuff out the last vestiges of philosophy, man's reasoning quest for transcendent truth.
If it is true (and I for one think it is obvious) that America is the strongest and healthiest country in the West today-probably its last best hope-then some attention ought to be paid to how America is to be kept strong. It will not do to pass it by disdainfully, like Nietzsche and other romantics, complaining (by implication) that America's principles foster the passion for gain "to the point of blinding intoxication." Our commercialism was the price willingly paid by the Founders to establish a free country whose people would not be beholden to tyrant priests or haughty aristocrats. And our country does foster honorable virtues. From the beginning young men have generously dared to fight and die for their native land, most recently in the Vietnam War, so shamefully lost by our self-doubting politicians. In Federalist No. 57, Madison spoke of "the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America-a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it." That spirit is not yet dead in the American people, whatever may be the case with our intellectual and political elites.
Given the basic decency of America, should not the crisis of our time be addressed most immediately by a commitment to defend America against her foreign enemies and to revive within its citizens and rulers a dedication to the principles that made her great? Foremost among those principles are the truths of the Declaration of Independence, "the father of all moral principle" in us (Abraham Lincoln), based on the laws of nature and of nature's God. And these natural laws, in turn, are discoveries of political philosophy.
Smith's attack on my account of Socrates amounts to an attack on the idea of natural law and natural right-the ultimate basis of the American regime, according to the Declaration and the Framers of the Constitution. Socrates originated political philosophy by bringing philosophy down from the heavens and forcing it to inquire about right and wrong in the households and cities of men. Socratic political philosophy tries to discover standards of right which are true everywhere and always and which enable us to know what the good society is. The aim is to guide political life by genuine standards of right, replacing the false standards of unjust tradition or of willful despotism. Thus America's Founders thought they were getting rid of the baneful remnants of feudalism and establishing a just society on a truly rational basis.
But Smith doubts that political life can be based on any transcendent "guiding star" discovered by reason. Instead, "the political community must take its bearings 'internally' if it is to remain political." It needs "ancient traditions" that belong to it alone, not Socratic, nature-grounded right whose authority comes from philosophic reason rather than from tradition, and which transcends all particular communities. Socratic natural right, Smith implies, is dangerous or ineffectual insofar as it points to the philosophic life of inquiry as the highest end of the community, since that life lies completely beyond the ken of the ordinary citizen.
But is the philosophic life completely trans-political? Here again Smith betrays his abstract stance. Plato's unforgettable portrayal of the life of reason in the person of Socrates is accessible to any intelligent reader. Cicero's Roman repetition of Plato's project confirms that the philosophic life can be an object of reverence and aspiration for the most patriotic citizens and statesmen. Closer to our own time we have Churchill's frequently repeated sentiments of respect for the life of the mind and Lincoln's Virgil-like encomium to the philosophic farmer in his Wisconsin State Fair address of 1859.
It is true, as Smith says, that the crisis of our time lies in the collapse of ancient traditions. But this is not precise enough. The traditions of the West are especially those of reason and revelation. "Men have forgotten God" (see Solzhenitsyn's Templeton address, National Review, July 22, 1983) in our time in two senses: The God we know through Biblical revelation is disbelieved no less than nature's God discovered by philosophy. Few educated men today would endorse John Quincy Adams's beautiful gloss on the Declaration of Independence: "All this, is by the laws of nature and of nature's God, and of course presupposes the existence of a God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon men, preceding all institutions of human society and government."
Our problem, then, is not that Socratic philosophy has destroyed pre-philosophic traditions, as Smith, following Nietzsche, seems to say. It is that the very idea of political philosophy has come to be discredited by positivism and by the historicism of such men as Nietzsche and Heidegger. If the survival of the West depends on the revival of America, then it also depends on the recovery of the natural-right basis of our political community. This means not only natural right in the narrowly Lockean sense, but especially that classical natural right stemming from Socrates which points to a government that represents all the people (not just the rich, the poor, the wellborn, or the intellectuals) and governs under law with a view to justice and the general good.
Gregory Smith and some other students of Strauss's work run the risk of that "self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism" (The City and Man, p. 1) which Strauss fought against as long as he lived. While the Soviet Union continues the most tremendous arms build-up in recorded history, Smith celebrates the intellectual "joy and exhilaration" of our age in which all ancient traditions are crumbling. While he casually rejects the American traditions of Christianity and natural right-probably the last vital traditions of the West-he speculates idly about how the political community can generate a new authoritative convention from within and about the need to unleash on the world a new political order frankly based on the passion for honor and glory. How such a regime would extricate us from the relativistic and destructive self-indulgence of our time he fails to say.
Of course nature, sooner or later, always exacts her just punishment against those who fail to follow her guidance. America's conservative and liberal discredited, if they continue to be successful, will eventually be squashed by the victorious Soviet empire. Unfortunately, the Soviet steamroller will also crush the rest of us as it rolls over them. I fear this will happen long before Smith and his friends' deceitful dream of a New Nobility ever takes root.
- Thomas G. West
University of Dallas
Natural Right and the Future
I must confess that I had heard rumors that a rift among Straussians had developed, although I had been unclear as to precisely where the lines of battle were being drawn. Hence I must thank Thomas West, in his rejoinder to my "Socrates and Political Philosophy," for having tried to show me my place within this debate and thereby help me understand the import of those arguments I have made, "without quite noticing it." However, I must also confess that I do not think that taking sides on this internecine squabble within a school of philosophy involves us in one of the more pressing moral or intellectual issues of our day. Nonetheless, lurking somewhere in this "confrontation" is the question of whether we have a genuine commitment to political philosophy, and thereby philosophy as well, as an end in itself, and whether we can differentiate it from mere propaganda and ideology. In short, can we tell the difference between philosophy and politics, a distinction, I might add, that was at the heart of Leo Strauss's recovery of political philosophy. Furthermore, that we preserve the possibility of that which is highest and best in man, his nobility and openness to the truth, is what is at issue in our time. These are issues of some considerable importance.
It is because of these more substantial issues that it seems necessary to respond to West's remarks. It would appear that West has heeded the advice of Nietzsche, via a quote of Stendhal, that one should always enter society via a duel. Having had one thrust upon me, we both being noble and honorable men, I assume the choice of weapons is mine. However, I have had difficulty deciding which would be more appropriate, rapiers or sledge-hammers, so perhaps a judicious alternation of the two is in order. In that vein, I must observe that when West got through hammering me, I no longer recognized myself in the resulting caricature. He was so intent upon taking a shot at what he saw as certain undesirable Straussians that his sights lined up on a straw man.
My response has been complicated by the fact that West's reply arrived a week before our remarks had to go to the publisher, and then he made several late changes after my first draft was completed. Those changes removed arguments that I think brought his position into sharper focus. Therefore, I will continue to respond to a few of those earlier remarks as well as to the final draft. I do not think this is unfair, since in each case the issues I will discuss remain implicit in what is said here. Also, before beginning, I must observe that, given the occasion, West's remarks about Professors Joseph Cropsey and Thomas Pangle seem somewhat gratuitous. I respect both of them immensely, but since I cannot know if they endorse anything I have said or will say it should be stressed that in what follows I speak only for myself.
West accuses me of abstractness, blindness to the eternal, and indifference to the tradition of natural right and its defense, to say nothing of impugning my patriotism and morals as well as my knowledge of geography. First, I would remind West that it was I who proposed "nature" as a standard for judging political life. And in doing so I observed that it was more applicable to the horizon of practice than holding up philosophy or, more to the point, some facsimile of philosophy as a standard. This is especially true in our time, a time in which politics has become ideological precisely because it is already all too infected with public manifestations of philosophy. And I was explicit that the "great- souled" man, one of the peaks of Aristotelian natural right, was an example of what I had in mind, and I assume that the "great-souled" man is not dissimilar to Plato's "spirited man." In short, I proposed a recovery of one of the important ideas that was at the core of the Western Natural Right Tradition. West is, however, curiously silent about Aristotle, and Plato for that matter, attributing my remarks about nobility to Nietzsche instead. This is indeed curious in light of the explicit reference that I made. West seems instead to dub Socrates as the father of the Natural Right Tradition. The sense in which this is true would have to be elaborated. Although, for example, Strauss did say that Socrates was the father of political philosophy, it is not clear that political philosophy is identical to natural right. I cannot pursue that issue now, but I would remind West that what Socrates, as opposed to the more moderate Plato, was primarily famous for was being a spokesman for that radical questioning of one's own in the quest for what is best, whether it is one's own or not. The reason for this was that he believed that the unexamined life was not worth living. Those who had undertaken this regimen of examination were clearly higher and more noble. Hence Socrates concluded that there was a hierarchy of human types. This is perhaps what makes him a natural right theorist, but it is also what makes him less
than useful to West.
West asserts that what is needed in our time is "the recovery of the natural right basis of our regime." He asserts that this is to be found not merely in Locke, but in Socrates as well. West would have us believe that one can accomplish an amalgamation of the Lockean modern natural right tradition with Socratic questioning. I fail to see how, especially since that modern natural right tradition rejects the existence of a natural hierarchy of spiritual types in favor of a regime based on the consent of equals. Be this as it may, I take it that no one would doubt that Aristotle is firmly within the original natural right tradition and that the moral peaks of his practical teaching, the great-souled man and the man of practical wisdom, have been written out of the universe of Hobbes and Locke; hence, no serious theoretical synthesis of Hobbes, Locke, and Aristotle is possible. I suspect this is equally true in regard to Socrates, but at least we have a reason for West's silence on Aristotle. I am inclined to conclude, therefore, that what West really intends is that we primarily defend as our own that natural right teaching that emanates from Hobbes and Locke, the modern natural right position. But it was Leo Strauss who taught that it was this modern version of natural right that caused the crisis of natural right, and led necessarily to historicism as a corrective for the problems it introduced. Hence it is this modern version of natural right that gave birth to that understanding which rejects the existence of natural right altogether. So I cannot help but ask, who is the clearer proponent of the natural right tradition, and thereby its best defender?
Furthermore, the Socrates that West praises is the same Socrates who put philosophy forward as the best way of life, despite the old saw that he brought philosophy down from the heavens. That "lowering of the sights" did not make Socrates a patriot or a citizen in West's sense. What was at issue was only the beginning point for philosophy; the opinions of men about things, versus the attempt to grasp the whole in one leap in the mode of Parmenides and Heraclitus. What Socratic philosophy does, in the examples we have from the Platonic dialogues, is ruthlessly question all received opinion in favor of the truth that transcends that opinion. Yet in the name of Socrates, West derides as "self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism" my substantially more temperate celebration of the intellectual "joy and exhilaration" of thought as an end in itself. Who is the better Socratic?
I began my remarks by conjoining the observation that it is intellectually exhilarating that in our time all of the important questions were again open and available to us, with the observation that this was necessarily linked with our moral and political confusion, our practical crisis. By doing so I intended to stress that politics and philosophy are not the same, and that their interests are not entirely identical. I presume it is from Strauss that I learned that this observation was at the heart of the classical natural right tradition. I also intended to make the equally general observation that without taking cognizance of this fact no lasting solution to the crisis of our time will be available. A politics that destroys one of the highest possibilities of man is not decent. A philosophy that is indifferent to the moral and political crisis all around it is not wise. I certainly never expected as a result of these general and rather formal remarks to be accused of being an opponent of America and of the natural right tradition.
I would remind West that every intellectual issue we discuss is not an immediate excuse for a diatribe about Soviet-American relations. Furthermore, that the United States is confronted by the Soviet Union is not the necessary practical ramification of the crisis of our times as West asserts. All great nations have enemies. And as Leo Strauss observed, the United States and the West could go down to defeat without proving that they were in the grips of a moral and intellectual crisis. The crisis of our time is that we have become confused as to what we should stand for, and we are in danger of losing sight of what is worth fighting for.
Further, while accusing me of being a romantic, West waxes poetic in the praise of "the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America." In his previous draft, in a phrase which I think gets to the heart of what West has on his mind, he claims that I would realize that this spirit still exists, and that America already has all the virtues it needs, if only I would come and visit the "provinces" where he resides. But I have reason to believe that West's neighbors are either urbanites or suburbanites, and his students primarily children of the middle or upper-middle class the same as mine, and that they are every bit as caught up in the ethic of the "yuppie" as are my neighbors and the students I have had in Chicago and Philadelphia. And in that unrepentant materialism, I find no cause for delight, and no reason to wax poetic. Which of us is really the romantic?
Perhaps what is really at issue is that, following Aristotle, West believes that while one must take note of the ideal that human beings can attain, he must also temper that understanding according to the situation. I quite agree. But I do not think that West properly grasps the situation that confronts us. This situation requires more than the justification of the moral status quo that West seems to be the spokesman for. It is precisely now that we must help our citizens recall a higher vision of the moral and spiritual peaks in order to temper their reigning intoxication. And we must reground the spiritedness and moral tenacity that seem, despite a certain momentary revival, to be so tenuous.
From where I stand, our country as a whole, indeed our entire planet, is and will continue to become more secular, cosmopolitan, and urbanized. Whatever provinces that remain in twenty years will be as dominated by the effects of an ever-increasing standard of living; an increasing amount of leisure time without ends to pursue; the cosmopolitanizing influences of the national news media, television, and movies; and national, indeed international, fashions and fads as are those who presently live in our cities. In deciding what prescription is required if we are to even maintain what spiritual health we have, we must be aware, in a way West does not demonstrate that he is, of the unprecedented features of the real world in which we are living. West is correct: what is primarily at issue is, in fact, which one of us knows what country he is really living in.
West seems intent upon keeping from us the news that "God is dead." Unfortunately, the word has leaked out. Only in a serious confrontation with what is implied in that phrase-i.e., that belief in the eternal and transcendent has been shattered-can we expect a moral revival. Precisely because we must confront the stultification of the spirit that universal Soviet Marxism would imply, we must generate the spiritedness and moral strength that will allow the United States to represent something spiritually higher, and not merely something physically more comfortable. A simple praise of intoxication with comfortable self-preservation, and that is what I see America preeminently committed to at this juncture, is not the ground from which moral tenacity and spiritedness are born. If we do not stir the hearts and minds of our most noble young spirits, if we lose their commitment and spiritual energy, the defense of America will become impossible. In modern fashion, West seems willing to build his defenses in a low but sturdy valley; I prefer to build my fortifications on higher ground. And on that higher ground spirited conviction and moral and political tenacity will have to grow out of an investigation of root phenomena, not the rather crude patriotism and ambiguous espousal of natural right that West proposes.
What virtue there is that still remains in the fabric of American life is a residue of the past, of a social, economic, intellectual, and moral world that has substantially collapsed and will not be reborn. Those residual virtues that Tocqueville advised us to defend at all cost have become but vague shadows. We must find a new ground for them, not take their existence for granted. Those virtues which West seems to value most in American life, at the very least which I value most, are slipping away from us, and without a serious spiritual revival drawn from serious philosophical roots, they will not survive the onslaught of the technological age which is destined to remain with us for an extended period, in intensified form. And without a regeneration of those virtues that sustain American political life, our regime will continue its slide into a privatized self-indulgence that will generate no moral tenacity whatsoever in the face of the Soviet Union. It is sheer moral myopia not to realize that moral and spiritual life in the modern world needs a new foundation. In a blind patriotic commitment to the status quo, everything worth loving and cherishing in America will crumble, perhaps in our lifetime. West's tunnel vision that sees the entire crisis of our time in the Soviet-American confrontation, which, needless to say, must be taken seriously, will never confront the true root causes of our crisis. All of us cannot be publicists and bully-pulpit patriots. It is valuable that some of us turn our gaze toward matters which on the surface do not seem to West to address important questions, but nonetheless help illuminate the root causes of our contemporary lostness and confusion. To have our patriotism, religious beliefs, morals, and intellects questioned for following that higher patriotism is a just cause for considerable resentment and indignation.
With this said, let me elaborate upon what I admit was a potentially confusing locution. In my initial remarks, I said that politics must take its standards "internally." By that phrase, I did not intend to imply the impossibility of transcendence nor of any openness to eternity. I intended only to stress that man must cease to take his political standards from "externally" imposed theoretical projects for the transformation of the human condition. My intention was to argue that internal to political life itself one can find standards of the noble and base, the higher and the lower, and that these standards represent a surer guide than those external projects that promise the amelioration of the human condition. The failure to recognize the difference between politics and philosophy is precisely what makes the philosophers prone to "will" their own projects for humanity. And West's espousal of grounding the city in light of the standard of philosophy, is separated from this modern approach by only the finest of lines. In this vein, let me agree with West that nature "always exacts her just punishment against those who fail to follow her guidance." But let me remind West that nature and the Soviet Union are two different things; indeed nature does not need the Soviet Union to get its revenge. It will revenge itself against those who refuse to be open to that noble striving in man that finds manifestation in both philosophy and the "great-souled" or "spirited" man. And nature will revenge itself, through internal moral collapse, against those regimes blind or hostile to that noble longing. If this observation is "self-forgetting and intoxicating romanticism," then it is a romanticism I share with Aristotle and Plato, and that is company I am more than happy to keep.
Hence, as a practical matter, in the interim, I find no better place to begin than to manumit those natural spiritual longings of which I have spoken, and again recognize the natural hierarchy among spiritual types that was at the core of the original natural right tradition. To me, this is far more concrete than the continued truncation, suppression, and attempted transformation of the full range of human possibilities which lies at the heart of the modern natural right tradition's attempt to transform existence on the basis of a philosopher's idea, which led to the even more violent projects for human transformation that followed. Who is more abstract, who is more concrete?
It is through liberating, albeit not without tutelage, the natural hierarchy of human strivings, rather than in suppressing them, that the natural perspective of the city will be allowed to come to light. In other words, in our time, our task is the at least partial recovery of political man, not another justification of economic man, for in deciding which side of the eternal political equation to stress, we must always look to the major vice of the time, and in our time that is the increasingly untempered pursuit of gain, conjoined with an almost unlimited commitment to the technological domination of nature. I have no desire whatsoever to overthrow our commercial republic, but without a new ground for the virtues it needs to survive, it will self-destruct.
Within the perspective of a more natural city, philosophy will be able to take care of itself. Unlike West, I agree with what I take to be the conclusion of both Plato and Aristotle, that it is in the city ruled by the naturally best, the noble, that philosophy is most esteemed, not in the one ruled by rustics and provincials, nor for that matter in the one ruled by the materialistic and self-indulgent. It is also in this city that the true religious pathos can come to light, that pathos that is so radically foreign to the modern tradition of Natural Right-e.g., it is as foreign to Locke as any other philosopher I can think of, and that observation includes especially Nietzsche. It is through recapturing, to some degree, this city of which I have spoken so briefly and I admit vaguely, that a genuine openness to eternity can again become a living possibility, not in the one I hear West praising.
- Gregory B. Smith
University of Pennsylvania